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Democrats defend Senate seat as Mass. polls open

Democrats in Massachusetts are looking to avoid a huge upset as voters hit the polls Tuesday to select a new senator in the special election to replace the vaca
Left (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Right (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Left (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Right

Democrats in Massachusetts are looking to avoid a huge upset as voters hit the polls Tuesday to select a new senator in the special election to replace the vacancy left by now-Secretary of State John Kerry.

It was just over two years ago when Republican Scott Brown shook up the political world by winning another special election to replace the late Democratic legend Ted Kennedy for the Bay State.

But that was then.

This year, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey appears to be a heavy favorite to defeat GOP nominee Gabriel Gomez, a political newcomer and former Navy SEAL who so far seems to have been unable to replicate Brown's end-of-the-race surge.

Still, Democrats are taking no chances. While polls have consistently shown Markey leading Gomez, the party has pumped millions of dollars into the race and sent the biggest names in to help rally the faithful—President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden included—all designed to keep reliable Democratic voters from getting complacent.

When it comes to special elections and voters unused to casting ballots in the heat of summer, turnout is a potential wild card, and there are signs that this election could attract sparse participation. According to the Massachusetts secretary of state, less than 50,000 absentee ballots were requested for Tuesday’s election, a sharp decline from the 63,610 requested in 2010. The secretary of state has projected about 1.6 million voters will participate in the special election Tuesday -- 600,000 less than in 2010.

A Suffolk University poll released Monday put Markey’s margin at 10 points, and other recently released polls have varied from 20 points to high-single digits. But Markey’s lead has never evaporated, and Democrats are banking on a strong get out the vote operation even as voter interest has been low.

Having been burned before in unpredictable special elections, Democrats spared no expense to boost the 37-year congressional veteran. The party has nearly doubled Republican spending in the race, with, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC combining to spend more than $2 million to hammer Gomez. In all, over $5 million has been spent in the race in support of Markey, compared to the $3 million spent by Gomez and supportive groups.

Gomez hasn’t received the same level of support from Republicans even though the veteran has a profile his national party needs to highlight—a young, moderate Latino who differs with his party on immigration, gun control and climate change.

Hitting the congressman for his nearly four decades in Congress, Gomez has asked for “17 months” to make the case he can be a bipartisan broker in the Senate before he’s up for re-election again in 2014. The GOP nominee has said he would support the immigration bill before the Senate, vote for expanded criminal background checks on guns., and backs gay marriage.

Markey has worked to show Gomez would be another reliable Republican vote on other base issues, including his opposition to banning assault weapons. Though Gomez, a Catholic, says he’s personally anti-abortion, he has said he wouldn’t work to overturn existing law, but Markey has argued he’d vote to confirm Supreme Court justices who would overturn the law. Gomez, a wealthy former investment banker has also faced criticism over a quarter-million tax break he claimed on his home.

In 2010, Scott Brown rode growing discontent over health care legislation and a rising GOP wave to victory over Democrat Martha Coakley and her campaign’s missteps. But Brown lost re-election last year to Democrat Elizabeth Warren as President Obama carried the Bay State by 23 points.

But Gomez has failed to recreate that lightning in a bottle Brown had in 2010. The economy is improving, health care faces certain implementation, and the state’s Democratic and independent voters seem unconvinced to send a vote to Washington to undermine their newly-minted Democratic senator and popular president.

Nonetheless, Brown tried to recreate some of the magic he once had for Gomez on the eve of the election. On Monday night, the former senator headlined a rally for the GOP nominee, poking fun at the idea that Democrats are headed toward a victory.

"Of course it is not over," said Brown.

Gomez dismissed polls showing him down on Monday though, telling NBC he was confident in his campaign’s ability to get their voters to the polls.

And Markey was taking no chances, telling NBC News, “It says work even harder, don't trust polls. Don't even believe it for a second. You have to go out. You have to do the work. If you don’t get the vote out, then you don’t get to win.”

NBC's Alex Moe contributed to this report.